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Queen of All Islands: The Imagined Cartography of Matthew Paris’s Britain

Matthew Paris's map

Matthew Paris’s map

“Queen of All Islands”: The Imagined Cartography of Matthew Paris’s Britain

John Wyatt Greenlee

East Tennessee State University: Master’s Thesis (2013)

Abstract 

In the middle decade of the thirteenth century, the Benedictine monk and historian Matthew Paris drew four regional maps of Britain. The monk’s works stand as the earliest extant maps of the island and mark a distinct shift from the cartographic traditions of medieval Europe. Historians have long considered the version attached to the monk’s Abbreviatio Chronicorum – the Claudius map – as the last and most thorough of Paris’s images of Britain. However, scholars have focused on the document’s limitations as an accurate geographic representation and have failed to consider critically Paris’s representation of Britain with an eye towards its political implications. This thesis is an examination of the elements of the Claudius map, in context with the monk’s historical writings, to argue that Paris’s map of Britain should be studied as an aggressive cultural artifact through which the monk posited imperial English claims to suzerainty over the whole of the island.

Introduction

Sometime between 1250 and 1259, nearing the end of his life, the Benedictine monk Matthew Paris drew four maps of Britain. In both style and function these maps departed significantly from the prevailing cartographic traditions of medieval Europe. No English artist or monk had ever drawn a map like them, and the Continent knew no equivalent. Paris ignored medieval cartographic traditions in constructing these maps. He narrowed the scope of his gaze to the island of Britain, an area usually marginalized or ignored by medieval mapmakers. In so doing, he demonstrated a clear effort to fix correctly the island’s various geographies. Unique among mapmakers of his time, Matthew Paris privileged issues of space over those of theology. His images of the island stand apart from contemporary cartographic efforts through their orientation, and their apparent attention to political identities. Matthew Paris’s maps allowed his audience to see, and presume to know, the whole of Britain for the first time.

Of Paris’s four Britain maps, the Claudius map presents the most thorough and finished cartographic vision for the island. Because of the map’s complexity in relation to the monk’s other efforts, and its inclusion in one of Paris’s final manuscripts, historians have generally accepted the Claudius map as the monk’s best attempt at achieving a precise geographical representation for the island. Consequently, the Claudius map holds an important place in the historiography, appearing in almost every survey of cartographic history. Historians’ treatment of the map has been largely casual, however. Most examinations of the Claudius map have acknowledged it primarily for its place in a standard teleological narrative of cartographic development: as an early step on the road towards scientifically accurate mapping. Scholars have looked at the document as an important, though unsuccessful, effort at moving away from the more symbolic and cosmographic style of medieval mapmaking. But the work of historians such as J. B. Harley, Thongchai Winichakul, and others provides grounds to reconsider such assumptions. Their studies argue that maps often act as projections of political will disguised as neutral reflections of natural truth. Scholars have begun to move towards applying a wider understanding of medieval cartography along these lines, but the historiography has yet to consider the potential political implications and claims in the Claudius map.

Click here to read this thesis from East Tennessee State University


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